On child poverty, choosing services over benefits is a progressive dead end

Labour must prioritise investment in universal childcare alongside income support, rather than simply trading one off against the other.

Are investments in services a better way of reducing child poverty than benefits that support income? ‘Yes’ argued IPPR director Nick Pearce this week when he called on Labour to find a new way to tackle child poverty that doesn’t rely on cash transfers, but instead builds institutions that attract popular support and can’t be dismantled at whim.

Much of what Nick says, as you would expect, makes good sense. Most would agree that a child poverty strategy that relies solely on benefits to prop up families’ incomes is neither effective nor sustainable. But equally, a strategy that regards children’s centres and expanded childcare as the only answer to the child poverty problem is also likely to be ineffectual.

The UK and the international evidence suggests that choosing services over benefits is a false choice and a progressive dead end.

Labour’s commitment to end child poverty drove action to (i) make work pay (ii) invest in childcare and early years services, and (iii) boost the incomes of families with children using the tax and benefits system. As a result, between the mid-1990s and 2008 the UK had the largest reduction in child poverty in the OECD. This unprecedented success was because a broad approach was pursued, not because the child poverty strategy was reduced to a simplistic choice of benefits over services. 

It is right to point out that those countries with low child poverty rates generally have higher rates of parental employment than the UK, but they certainly don’t achieve this at the expense of family benefits. OECD data shows that the Nordic countries all provide children’s benefits at broadly the same level as the UK and also provide other, more generous, benefits to families. The difference between us and them is that they prioritise investment in universal childcare alongside income support rather than simply trading one off against the other.

The spending switch we need to make is from spending billions dealing with the costs of child poverty to investing in preventing child poverty in the first place.

This is not about making tough choices as we pitch progressive ideas  - ‘childcare vs. child benefit’ - against each other. It’s actually more ambitious and urgent than that. Instead, it is a big decision to get the fundamentals rights -  to make our society fairer and our economy stronger -  which requires us to rethink public spending across the whole of government.

We know that without widespread public support, even policies proven to reduce child poverty are at the mercy of, sometimes unforgiving, political and economic forces.

Yet the appropriate response to evidence of declining public support, such as the analysis of existing polling published by Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week, is surely not just to build popular institutions but to also build a popular consensus around poverty reduction that can weather the bad times as well as good.

As others have noted, it is simply not correct to conceive attitudes as something solid and immovable.  We know polls show that the public regard the welfare state as one of the country’s finest achievements and, in future, there’s good reason to believe that rising living costs and falling living standards will be an important election battleground issue.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the policies that will make a difference to poverty  - investment in child benefit, affordable housing, childcare and decent jobs – are likely to be popular. Politicians may just find that showing leadership and championing policies that tackle poverty may have electoral as well as child poverty pay offs, too. 

A girl paints a wall in the Heygate Estate in the Walworth area on April 24, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

Photo: Getty
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.